The Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) concluded its 2013 late-run Kenai River king salmon discussion by accepting a questionable Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) recommendation to lower the Kenai king escapement goal and are taking no other action to amend failed management plans.
The bottom line: The BOF, led by Bristol Bay representative to the board Vince Webster, effectively placed the burden of further king salmon conservation squarely on the resource and prioritized commercial set net harvest above all other concerns for the 2013 season.
In the aftermath of the 2012 season, where the lowest and latest run on record confounded management of Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, the BOF created a task force with instructions to identify the best mix of fishing opportunity during times of low king salmon abundance and the best means of attaining the escapement goal.
ADFG used the task force process to present the results of the department’s run reconstruction and interim escapement goal recommendation. ADFG has recommended a new escapement goal that is significantly lower than the old goal and brings with it a list of uncertainties. The old goal based on split beam sonar was a Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG) of 17,800 – 35,700. The new goal is a SEG of 15,000 – 30,000 and is measured by counting king salmon with the newer and more accurate Didson sonar and expanding the Didson count by a factor of 1.28 to account for fish not counted by the sonar beam in past years.
Using Didson sonar counts of actual fish, in 2012 the minimum escapement goal was about 18,000 kings, whereas by the new ADFG math the minimum count for kings is about 12,000. The finish for the minimum amount of spawning kings is one third less in 2013 than last year, or 6,000 fish.
Outside peer review and comments by KRSA pointed out that there are at least three aspects of the analysis and recommendation that argue for cautious application of this new goal. First there is no brood year return data to support a SEG of less than 26,000 (more than 70 percent of the new goal has no brood year data, contrary to ADFG protocols); second, an acknowledgement that we are experiencing low production of king salmon, most likely a result of ocean conditions; and third, the expansion factor of the Didson count adds risk to fish stocks.
KRSA argued that the fish must come first and that the new lower goal essentially placed the burden of conservation squarely on the resource. KRSA argued for a 2013 interim plan that would result in escapements more in the range of 18,000 to 21,000 by establishing a “precautionary zone” within the department’s recommended escapement goal range and require managers to “tap on the brakes” for all fisheries when the escapement is projected to challenge the low end of the range. Remember that the 18,000-21,000 spawners we were arguing for only translate into about 15,000 Didson counts. At the end of the disastrous 2012 season, we had over 21,000 Didson counts.
In spite of KRSA’s participation in the task force process, our on-time public comments, oral presentations to the board at the meeting and participation in the committee-of-the-whole process prior to deliberations, our voice for a precautionary approach was not heeded. It was clear as we watched task force co-chair and board member Vince Webster lead the discussion and drafting of documents that managing for whatever gave the commercial set net fishery the best chance to get back in the water for an unrestricted 2013 took precedent over rigorous science, fairness or economics.
The 2013 run is predicted to be equal to the smallest on record. We are not out of the “low abundance” woods yet by any stretch of the imagination. What the BOF has done is lower the escapement goal, placing the first step of sharing the burden of conservation on the resource. In doing so, they have prioritized set net harvest over all other fishery objectives and they have left the department managers with the same management plans that so dramatically failed to “provide the best mix of fishing opportunity and best means of achieving the escapement objective” in 2012. The BOF missed the opportunity to provide the department allocative direction on how to manage in 2013, and ADFG will find itself back in the business of picking winners and losers among the competing fisheries again this summer.